A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre

By Owen Bradley | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

Symbolic Power

It is really saddening to see the eccentricity of the Middle Ages repeatedly misused to teach men to boast of themselves, as if they were devilish fine fellows. -- Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

The idea of sovereignty has not received good press or even much attention in contemporary political theory, despite the prodigious efforts of a Bataille or a Carl Schmitt to revive it. Typical of the turn away from this venerable topic is Maritain's suggestion that "political philosophy must get rid of the word, as well as the concept, of sovereignty," not only because "it creates insuperable difficulties" but because "this concept is intrinsically wrong." Yet this "confusing" and "wrong" concept refers to a fact; a fact, wrong and confusing as it may be, is not done away with by doing away with its concept. While we may agree with Maritain that "there is no sovereignty, that is, no natural and inalienable right to transcendent or separate supreme power in political society," we must yet insist upon the reality of a sovereignty effect, a supremacy of power separated from the sphere of consensual self-government. Power does claim transcendence and must do so as long as its actions are not in fact just, that is, indefinitely.1


Political Anthropology: The Ritual Forms of Power

That this transcendence claimed by power is imaginary makes it no less consequent. President John Adams remarked of the sacred paraphernalia that make of power a sovereignty, "take away crowns and thrones from among men, and there will be an end of all dominion and justice."2 Revolutionary and reactionary politicians alike have believed that power requires a sacred sanction if its de facto transcendence is to be translated into a de jure legitimacy. Maistre's position on sacred sovereignty pushes Adams's argument further: it is not only useful to power but necessary to the very idea of social order. Sovereignty and people are wholly complementary terms, the one necessary to the other: "the idea of a people reveals that of an aggregation around a common center, and without sovereignty there can be no ensemble or political unity" ( Maistre, Etude, OC 1:324). This mention of a grouping

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A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter 1 - French Traditionalism 1
  • Chapter 2 - Sacrifice 32
  • Chapter 3 - Punishment and War 61
  • Chapter 4 - Symbolic Power 87
  • Chapter 5 - Legitimacy and The Origins of Sovereignty 110
  • Chapter 6 - Science and Society 137
  • Chapter 7 - Providence 166
  • Chapter 8 - Revolution and Counterrevolution 199
  • Works Cited 251
  • Index 261
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